“GRANDMA FOOD” MEANS homemade comfort, right? In some families, that’s long-simmered Bolognese with homemade pasta; in others, it’s crisp cylinders of lumpia punctuated by pork, or golden tahdig unearthed from the bottom of a pot of saffron rice.
No matter the family tradition, “homemade” always seemed nonnegotiable to me. Grandma food hearkened to a simpler time: In perfume form, it would smell like fresh-baked bread; capturing it in a photo would look like a Sunday meal with cousins and elders. Canned, frozen and bottled foods weren’t in the picture.
I know, I know. That was always more Hallmark ad than reality. But it’s the passage of time, as well. The Grandma food cliché, whatever truth it ever had, depending on income and circumstance, needs an update. At this point, it means great-grandmothers or great-greats or who even knows how far back.
What punctured my nostalgic bubble? My mom sent a collection of family recipes.
From my artist grandmother, who notoriously made spaghetti in a coffee pot, I had warm memories of classic slow-cooked brisket and stuffed cabbage rolls. The secret ingredient in the brisket? Bottled chili sauce. (A secondary version used Lipton onion soup mix and Kitchen Bouquet, a bottled sauce enhancer.) The cabbage rolls used jarred grape jelly and a bottle of chili sauce.
My favorite from my other grandma, a schoolteacher, was her noodle kugel, eaten in marvelous sweet, chilled blocks. That recipe, so it happens, relied on canned crushed pineapple and optional margarine. Grandma’s signature Russian salad dressing, always available in her fridge in a repurposed glass jar, mainly consisted of ketchup, mayo and pickle relish. It was great, but not Michael Pollan territory. Maybe my grandmothers’ mothers had different versions of these dishes; it’s too late now for me to ask.
I still wouldn’t change a thing about those childhood meals — and all recipes, of course, are products of their own times. Smucker’s and Heinz are actually easier for me to find in today’s grocery stores than the 2 tablespoons of chicken fat also listed on the stuffed cabbage recipe card. And my grandmothers were preparing meals during the decades when processed and packaged foods became a welcome alternative to the labor-intensive, time-consuming daily grind of feeding a family. Who would make a kugel that required buying and chopping a fresh pineapple, assuming they could even find one in the markets of their day? Why would my practical and frugal grandmother take on something that cost more money, on top of more hassle? (Also, margarine was considered healthier than butter, as well as easier to find, during her peak cooking years.)
My kids (and maybe, one day, grandkids?) hopefully will remember fondly that they ate homemade bread and soups from scratch, that early July meant strawberry jam on the stovetop and August meant fresh peach cobbler, just like their great-grandmas never made.
They might also understand that my generation has a lot more options than earlier ones. I have the luxury of fitting in that homemade comfort around Costco pizza and takeout pho and other enjoyable-but-less-romanticized meals. And one more thing: I love spending time in the kitchen. While both my grandmas treasured family gatherings and providing generous meals, neither one particularly enjoyed the cooking.
When I make their signature dishes now, it’s not even the flavors I’m focusing on, though I still relish them. The real treat is how the food teleports me back to the memory of my grandmothers’ meals. I can practically taste the excitement of seeing their faces, the knowledge that I was the most welcome guest, smothered in love as well as Kitchen Bouquet. What a treasure and comfort it is to return to their kitchens, even through mine.
Esther’s Noodle Pudding
Makes 12 pieces
1 pound broad egg noodles, cooked
1 stick margarine or butter, melted
4 eggs, beaten
1 20-ounce can crushed pineapple
1 cup cottage cheese
1 cup sour cream
Handful of raisins
¾ cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
2. Mix all ingredients together in a large bowl, and pour into a buttered 9-by-12-inch pan.
3. Bake for about 80 minutes on the oven’s center rack.
4. Cool before slicing. Serve at room temperature or chilled.